In recent years, Indian-American pianist Vijay Iyer has made a name for himself as a jazz pianist with obvious chops and intelligent decision making. His trio (with Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums) has recently released a virtuoso CD, Accelerando, with a mix of originals and surprising covers which seems the odds-on favorite to be the best jazz release of 2012. Building on the success of 2009’s Grammy nominated Historicity, Accelerando goes beyond its glorious predecessor and charts new ground for Iyer and company.
Iyer has been described as a “deconstructor” of tunes, and I think that’s fair but also not very informative. Taking tunes apart and putting them back together again has been essential to the jazz enterprise at least since Bob, Bebop, and Cool and in this regard Iyer is more a traditionalist than the rebel some see him as. He certainly values beauty (admittedly sometimes quite raw beauty) in his pianism and his construction of tunes.
The disk opens with an original, “Bode,” where Iyer follows a well-known pattern of allowing the listener to “eavesdrop” on him and the trio as they make the performance up as they go starting with only the most basic melodic and rhythmic motifs. The tune catches fire as you listen. “Bode” can be heard as a wholly independent track, as an extended warm-up for the following “Optimism” (as in an optimist thinking that things bode well and the tune boding well for the optimism to follow), or as a kind of prelude to the collection of music that follows. Perhaps none of these guises captures wholly the piece’s slow burn agility, but each of these ways of apprehending the opening tune and its relation to the disk as a whole can be revelatory.
My personal favorite tune on the disk is a cover of the Michael Jackson hit “Human Nature” which draws much of its improvisatory punch from the “hiccough” rhythm in the song’s chorus rather than from traditional harmonic/melodic variation. True to form, Iyer does take the song apart and re-assemble it; while the listener never feels lost, the performance also never feels predictable. I’d urge even the listener most saturated with contemporary jazz to listen to the trio play through the melodic line once, hit the pause button, imagine what will happen next, and then see how much he guessed correctly. I’m betting Iyer has surprises for even the most sophisticated (or jaded) listener out there.
By intelligent manipulation of context, rhythm, melody, and harmony (those musical building blocks), as his best—as he is on “Human Nature”—Iyer manages the rare feat of making the musical reality of duration seem far more flexible than a stopwatch would have you believe. His best performances on this disk seem simultaneously to last only an instant and to draw out extended pleasures for the listener.
Now, if only Iyer would play somewhere close-by so I could hear him live!